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Paradigms Up the Nose

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What if the political process applied to scientific enquiry? Truth would be determined by vote, and the scientist with the most side-boys would carry the day. Conferences would be raucous with chants: “Birkowitz Lied, and Bean-Plants Died!” Picketers would demand a recount on the human genome.

That the reality of scientific inquiry and publishing lies somewhere south of ideal, Apollonian dispassion (but maybe somewhere north of party politics) is brilliantly set forth in Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, an inside account of a paradigm shift in the field of the human sense of smell.

Luca Turin, an affable fellow with a nose for a mystery, has parlayed his ability to discern and describe the scent of perfumes into a recognized position as a man who knows what he smells. When he follows his nose into a cross-disciplinary inquiry into how we do this — how we tell sulfurous smells like rotten egg and onion apart from floral scents like iris and violet — and further, develops a theory that challenges the accepted “religion” of how our senses operate, he runs head-on into the politics of science.

Burr tells the story with all the rich aromas and foul odors needed to create the bouquet. For those with multi-media needs, a great companion piece is the BBC production A Code in the Nose, which illustrates the first part of the book, and gives us the advantage of hearing and seeing Turin’s arguments.

That Turin’s company Flexitral has been able to use his theory to create scents to order (read: make money) is one of the strongest arguments that his idea accords closely with reality. Realists should not need further argument to make the paradigm shift.

If the book draws you into the science, check out the website for Flexitral, and also the Random House interview with the author.

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